Don Macek: Charger Is Good, but Not Center of Attention

Name three centers in the National Football League. OK, name two. How about one?

Not easy, is it?

Among team sports, football is unique in that it hides some of its brightest stars. The center, for example, may as well be playing underground.

Can you name the Chicago Bears' center? Honestly, I would have to look it up. However, everyone from here to London knows the name of that defensive lineman-turned-backup fullback.

The CIA should recruit centers.

Can you imagine Don Macek walking up to Checkpoint Charlie?

"What do you do?" the guards would ask.

"I'm the center for the San Diego Chargers," Macek would respond.

"Go on through," the guards would say, giving each other knowing winks that this was one harmless fellow.

The thing about Macek is that he is among the best in the NFL at what he does. He has been among the best for no one knows quite how long, because no one really pays much attention to people who do what Macek does.

There are bartenders better known than Macek, and that is a sad state of affairs.

When the Chargers drafted Macek in 1976, it was almost as if they were apologizing for "wasting" a choice on so mundane a position. Centers are supposed to be picked up at garage sales or swap meets, not drafted.

So the Chargers drafted this center from Boston College, which in those days could not beat a fraternity (or maybe a sorority) from Oklahoma. What's more, he was from New Hampshire, which turns out ski instructors and lumberjacks and gets its name in the paper every four years when it holds a presidential primary.

How did the Chargers get away with this?

They announced that they had drafted GUARD Donnie Macek from Boston College. These guys were no dummies.

Until 1977. Then they were dummies. They went out and drafted a center in the first round, ignoring the fact that they already had a guy who would be the best they ever had at the position.

A year later, it finally occurred to them that Don Macek could play center. Since that wasted first-round pick in '77, the Chargers have drafted six quarterbacks, six tight ends, 18 running backs, 14 wide receivers, nine tackles and four punters.

But not one center.

Four players have been Charger starters since 1978. Everyone can probably come up with Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner and Woodrow Lowe, but Macek is The Other. He has started every game he has played since then, missing contests here and there because of assorted shoulder, hamstring, groin, neck and head injuries.

Center, you see, is a brutal position in a brutal game. The center starts the play by lifting the ball into the quarterback's hands and then all hell breaks loose around him. It is not a position for a guy who is afraid to walk down an alley in the dark. The meekest or the weakest may be the center in every playground pickup game ever played, but not in the NFL.

Asked to describe the moment the ball is snapped, Macek said: "Well, there's a collision right away, one way or the other. There are a lot of people shooting up the middle, and it gets pretty hectic."

He hesitated.

"It's interesting," he said.

Macek does not look the part of the brute in the middle of such mayhem. He has a round, boyish face and a gap-toothed grin. He has a soft voice rather than the seemingly more appropriate snarl.

You get a clue to the mental and physical toughness of this man when he talks about making a living doing what he does.

"Playing center," he said, "is like being in a sumo wrestling match every Sunday afternoon. That's kind of what a center goes through against the nose guard. But it's the thing I'd rather be doing more than anything else in the world, as far as work is concerned. It's a tough way to make a living, but I get enjoyment and satisfaction out of it."

But not much recognition. This man has never played in the Pro Bowl, for example.

"I can't say it doesn't bother me," he said, "because it does. I run into guys in the off-season I play against and they tell me I'm one of the best or the best they face, but I don't really get any recognition. I can't dwell on it. I'm not paid for the recognition I get. I'm paid for the job I do."

In a sense, Macek is a victim of circumstances. His sidekicks on the offensive line have included Russ Washington, Doug Wilkerson and Ed White, all legitimate candidates for the Hall of Fame. There just was not enough praise to go around, especially with so much of it focused on veteran stars.

However, they are gone now. Don Macek is the survivor. His time should be coming.

Maybe someone will ask him to do a commercial. It hasn't happened yet. Maybe someone will simply ask him to speak to a service club.

"I don't do a lot of that," he said, "because I'm really not in that big a demand. I've played in San Diego for 11 years and I'm still relatively unknown. A lot of ways that's good and a lot of ways that's bad."

It's probably nice, it was suggested, that he can go out to dinner without being bothered for autographs.

"That is nice," he said, "but it would also be nice if someone walked up and said: 'Hey, I know who you are. You're Donnie Macek.' "

It would also be nice, and appropriate, if they added: "One of the best."

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